Even in the inevitably frustrated aftermath of that game against Burnley on Monday night, there was one small but glimmering consolation to take away into the streets with us and properly digest on the way home: the point.
I mean, yes, three points was obviously the target, and perhaps even the expectation in the circumstances. But, failing that, one point also had something to be said for itself – and not just, for once, in some shrugging ‘better than nothing’ sense. Indeed, in this case, that point was better than ‘better than nothing.’
Because, of course, what Monday’s draw meant was that we had taken more points from the weekend’s fixtures than all of our three rivals for the top-four slots added together. Tottenham, you will recall, had gone down to Manchester City, for which they received no points. Manchester United had collapsed like a tent in a hurricane at Everton: they got no points for that. And there were no points, either, for Arsenal at the Emirates, from where the sound of bullets being aimed at feet emerged loud and clear in the form of a home defeat to Crystal Palace.
So, adding those three together, that made nought points in total. In that context, one point against Burnley on Monday made us the form team in third place.
Here’s the further thing. Since Monday all of those three rivals have played again. And even now, that solitary point against Burnley is looking like a pretty solid asset. United lost 2-0 to City. Arsenal lost 3-1 to Wolves. Okay, Tottenham reversed a trend by managing to scrape past Brighton. But our one point against Burnley remains more than Arsenal and United have secured in their last two matches, added together. And, indeed, if that despairing Christian Eriksen shot hadn’t somehow crept into Brighton’s goal in the 88th minute, our point against Burnley would be half of the points tally amassed by the four top-four rivals in their last 630 minutes of football.
Extraordinarily, of the 21 points available since last Saturday to the four sides going for those two Champions League places, just four have been secured.
Has there ever been a ‘sharp end of the season’ like it? Never have so many teams simultaneously gone blunt. It’s a bit like one of those sprint skating races that you see in the Winter Olympics in which everyone is going at it hammer and tongs until the bloke from Holland on the left suddenly brings down the Norwegian just inside him and both of them slide diagonally across the track and take down the entire chasing pack, leaving a solitary straggling Slovenian to potter blithely across the line with his arms in the air. You’ve seen more sophisticated sporting action, it goes without saying, and better deserved victories. But if we turn out to be that solitary straggling Slovenian, while Arsenal, Tottenham and Man U end up wriggling helplessly on their backs over by the surround-wall, then so be it.
That’s not to say that certain aspects of Monday’s match against Burnley didn’t rankle. This, after all, was the game in which Tom Heaton broke all known goal-keeping records by getting booked for time-wasting in the 32nd minute. Does that make him, paradoxically, officially English football’s quickest time-waster? I’m not sure, but I do know that he had some stiff competition from this own team-mates for the honour.
In the sixth minute, Burnley’s Dwight McNeil came to the east corner of the Matthew Harding end to take a corner and to say that he didn’t look like a man in a hurry is to be guilty of a considerable understatement. I’ve seen Southern train drivers walk faster up the platform at Victoria to the cab of their pending train than McNeil walked towards the fluttering flag on that occasion. Far from eagerly embracing the prospect of sticking it in the mixer where Burnley love it, you would have assumed McNeil was on his way to break terrible news to a loved one. And this was, one has to repeat, the sixth minute, when tails are supposed to be up, energy is supposed to be coursing round the pitch and the match is supposed to be stretching ahead of a player in a glorious vista of hope and possibility.
Ah well. Slowing the game right down was clearly the tactic from the outset. And fair enough. Teams do what they have to do. One can partly agree with David Luiz that this constitutes a kind of ‘anti-football’ although it’s probably also fair to acknowledge that, in their last two league visits to Stamford Bridge, Burnley have managed to score five goals against us, so clearly ‘anti-football’ turns ‘pro-football’ at some points, at least fleetingly.
Nevertheless, it was impossible not to be concerned about the number of Burnley players who caught cramp in the closing 15 minutes of that match. This was a troubling thing to behold and must also have been the subject of anxious head-scratching at the nation’s major public health institutes. What was going on out there? Was it infectious? Was it a pandemic? Would it spread outwards into the population, necessitating organised intervention at a governmental level?
Strangely, though, despite their exposure to the source, none of our players caught it. (Neither did any of Burnley’s medical team who, what with one thing and another, did an awful lot of running on the night.) Having been in the stadium, and therefore at risk of exposure, I have personally taken the sensible precaution of checking myself for outward signs of cramping in the days since and have shown no particular symptoms to date, touch wood. Nearly three days have elapsed now, so maybe we can all consider ourselves in the clear and will just have to write the whole episode off as one of those unfortunate, freak but thankfully isolated outbreaks.
That said, it pays to be vigilant and if you were in the vicinity of Stamford Bridge on Monday (or even if you were only watching on the television) and you notice signs of cramping, then see your doctor or consult your local pharmacist. Better to be on the safe side. And with any luck you’ll be able to run it off against a forlorn and demoralized Manchester United on Sunday. Someone has got to start putting some serious points on the board soon, haven’t they? Let’s hope it’s us.